Twenty Years Gone-Have Women Made Any Progress at Work?

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Bryce Covert wrote in today’s New York Times about how 20 years ago was the best era for working women. That seems weird, right? I don’t necessarily disagree, and having been there and started my career during the 1990's, I feel compelled to add my voice to this conversation. As a new lawyer (and accidental new mom) I expected that work and life integration would be relatively easy and open to me. I was wrong.

I had my first child during law school (another story for another time), and feeling overwhelmed as a new mom, I requested a part-time position as I prepared to enter the big law firm that had offered me a job after graduation. The firm told me that this type of arrangement was reserved only for women who had “put in their time” and that it was offered as a “perk” and as such wasn’t available to someone like me who was coming in as a new associate. Being 24 years old, still close to the message that I could achieve anything/my gender wouldn’t hold me back/the sky was the limit, I didn’t realize that exhibiting less than 110% willingness to give every moment of the day to my employer was labeling me as “not partner material” from day one, and that the career brinksmanship they played was designed to weed out people like me. When I told them I wasn’t coming on board because I wasn’t yet ready to work full-time, the response I got (from a male partner) was that I should consider my decision very carefully, because if I walked away, I would never get an opportunity like that again. 

What happened next is a story for another time. But suffice it to say that in the life I created after that, I left a lot of money and professional regard on the table. I had to fight my way back to career success when the time was right. I lived my life on my terms, and thanks to a lot of support and luck, I’m here today with a career I love and don’t regret a single decision I’ve made. Do I think that I had it easier than my mom did? Absolutely. But am I optimistic about the outlook for my own daughter? I’m sorry to say that not much seems to have changed since my first foray into the working world in the 90’s.

As a Gen-Xer, I saw my parents struggle to work, care for us and have a happy marriage. They failed in their quest to “have it all,” so I opted out of my career on the front end to make sure I did my best to create these things for myself: well-being, health, a strong relationship with my spouse, and, most importantly, time with my kids during their fleeting childhoods. I told myself that my career was further down my priority list. I don’t know if greater daycare and preschool supports would have helped me, but they might have. Would I have returned to my career, paid more in taxes and contributed to the economy to a greater extent? Maybe. I know that all along, as I was “opted out,” I desperately wanted to be in. I wanted to have a fulfilling, meaningful career and also be there for my family. If it had been less complicated or more affordable, then who knows what I would have done? I cherished my choice to do one or the other, as many parents didn’t have that luxury. But I would have greatly valued the opportunity to do both. And I want that for my daughter and son.

Besides tech advances that allow us to more easily connect with one another, I haven’t noticed a lot of advancement for women on the career front in the past 20 years. I still see few women executives atop major companies, and women V.C.s are rare. Women haven’t grown in number in politics, either. I see women struggling for recognition and understanding, and I still notice a lot of us footing the bill for the costs of being working parents and striving to get ahead in a world where childcare and backup care and emergency care tend to be women’s problems. Simply “leaning in,” in light of all of these life capacity and economic challenges, doesn’t seem to be helping us much.

What’s changed today, besides technology? In my early parenting days, we had already adjusted to the thousands of miles between family units, created by people like me who’d left their homes to relocate elsewhere. That is still a challenge for families. But what is even more difficult is that there is a greater emphasis on working long hours and having no boundaries between work and home (thanks to that new technology). There is a pride unique to American culture, described in this recent piece in The Atlantic, that celebrates how busy successful people are (versus in other cultures, where being successful means you don’t have to be busy). A 40-hour week was difficult enough 20+ years ago to balance in addition to other life challenges, including child-rearing. Today, 45 hours is a slow week in the average exempt-level position. Those in hourly jobs often need more than one to pay the bills. All of us are hustling in between work hours to try to get ahead, with more education, side gigs and building our own personal brands so we can land on our feet when the inevitable next change drops the floor out from beneath us. There are few minutes in the day that lie fallow.

I don’t believe in regrets, but if there’s one thing I do believe in, it’s progress. I’ve led a blessed, lucky life. I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve had, and the economic freedom to choose my path-there are no complaints. But if my daughter is still faced with the same obstacles I saw over 20 years ago, then it’s time for us to change. I can be there for her to support her through the life changes and help free up energy and time for her to reach her career goals and dreams, but what about all of the other young people who want to balance work and family, or other passions? What about the working parents who have no choice, and what about their children, who are in need of quality childcare and early childhood learning? If we want to broaden the possibilities for everyone, we need to address the root causes that impact women. That starts with workplace cultures that honor human needs, and resources that support childcare. After all, every one of us benefits when all able citizens participate more fully in our economy, and when we redefine success as being something that fits with a full and diverse experience of life, one that includes more than just work.

Photo credit: National Science and Media Museum via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions

Kelly Marinelli